The Wood Element & Spring Season in Yin Yoga

blossoms_sierramadreLong before humans peered through microscopes to discover that the world is constructed out of particles like atoms, molecules, and DNA, ancient peoples recognized the same principle – that every object is made up of many smaller parts coming together to form a whole. Taoism, Buddhism, and Ayurveda each describe how the Elements (materials and forces found in nature, including Air, Water, Fire, Earth, etc.) compose the human body and every object on our planet…as well as the planet itself!

The Elements are an interesting framework for viewing our yoga practice on many levels, as they relate to the physical health of the body and energetic system, emotional and psychological balance, philosophical principals about the nature of Self, and our connection to our environment.

In Chinese Medicine, the Elements are also associated with specific seasons of the year, and can help us practice yoga in a way that’s in tune with the rhythms of nature. The patterns of the seasons are also reflected in our own body’s energetic rhythms. When we practice with the elements, we remember that we humans are not separate from this Earth.

The Winter is a time of internal focus, when we are like seeds buried underground preparing to sprout. Once Spring arrives, the Wood Element represents that sprout emerging. The Wood Element energizes us to initiate transformation. This is a time of starting over, a rebirth of sorts. This fresh start can come with growing pains and frustrations, as it takes time for our new projects and ideas to take root.

labyrinth_arlingtonparkIn the Spring, we can benefit from cultivating “beginners mind,” and being flexible as we plan and organize the new visions that arise.

If you practice Yin Yoga, include poses that target the Liver/Gallbladder Meridians, which are associated with the Wood Element, and thought to help balance the tendency toward impatience as we initiate changes in Spring. These poses would be your side bends, hip openers, and stretches for the inner leg, including Shoelace, Square Pose, Swan Pose, Banana Pose, and Dragonfly (among others).

In your practice in general, look for ways to channel your active thinking mind – it may be in overdrive with all this new Spring energy! Concentration techniques in meditation (like counting the breaths) can help, as can breathing exercises that lengthen the exhales. The soothing qualities of the exhale can help calm the nervous system. Here’s an audio I recorded about a year ago entitled “Extending the Exhales” – give it a try!

Enjoy the fresh starts that Spring brings. Take steps forward and initiate transformation, but keep things in perspective and practice patience. Spend time outside in nature, and be sure to give your creativity some outlets.

What makes a yoga practice “mindful”?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while (thus the existence of my blog), but especially since I came back from the first 10-day retreat in the year-long Mindfulness Yoga & Meditation Training program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center last fall. The purpose of this program is to weave together the distinct, yet related, contemplative traditions of Yoga and Buddhist Insight Meditation into a powerful integrated practice. And, it does feel pretty different from most mainstream yoga classes.

You might ask: “Isn’t all yoga mindful?” And I get where you’re coming from.

Yes – all yoga has the potential to be mindful. In fact, all activities have the potential to be mindful activities. (Which is kind of the point of practicing mindful yoga and meditating, right? They are like the dress rehearsal for our other activities so that it becomes second nature to take what we’re practicing out into the world.)

Then why do we need this label “mindful yoga” to distinguish one approach to practice from others – are we implying that everyone else is doing “un-mindful yoga”? (Hopefully not.) But, just because something is called “yoga” doesn’t automatically guarantee that it’s helping us grow in our capacity to live mindfully.

mat&cushionWhat I mean when I describe a yoga practice as “Mindfulness Yoga” is that we are making mindfulness the centerpiece and focus of the yoga practice. Different types of yoga emphasize different aspects – some focus on tuning up the health of the body, or improving one’s fitness, and others are primarily concerned with reducing stress. In each of these, mindfulness is still there, but it may be more of a background feature.

In Mindfulness Yoga, we do the physical asana practice in a way that brings the development of mindfulness to the foreground. Our practice also serves to prepare the practitioner – in body, mind, heart, and energy – for formal meditation. So, ideally, in a Mindfulness Yoga practice you would build up to, and devote significant time, to seated meditation…which is usually not the case in the typical public yoga class!

If you look back at the ancient texts, the physical asana practice was never meant to stand alone as the full yogic path. It has been noted many times that Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, outlined in the Yoga Sutras, include ethical behaviors, asana, pranayama, and ever-subtler experiences of meditation. I think some schools of yoga seem to interpret this as a linear hierarchy, where you have to master the poses before you are ready to attempt meditation. But, there is another school of thought that says we can really benefit from practicing both postural yoga and formal meditation side by side.

So here are a few of the elements of a mindful yoga practice:

  • Start by creating space to connect, then build on that connection. I typically start lying down, or seated, and spend several minutes simply trying to “come home” to the body. This is a check-in time where you notice how the body is feeling, sense the emotional states that may be present, and acknowledge the activity level of your mind at the moment. These observations are judgement-free, and they help you practice in a way that is sensitive to your present-moment reality. Otherwise, you’ll probably just do what you always do, the same way you always do it…which sounds a lot like auto-pilot. So start in a very simple, undemanding shape, where you can establish a connection to the actual feeling of the body and breath, so that you can come back to that more easily during the more complex poses or movements later in your yoga session.
  • In yoga poses, direct attention to the felt sense of the body. The “felt sense” means the real-time sensations in the yoga-hands-matbody, including the obvious ones and the more subtle ones. Take in anything and everything – from the feeling of your hamstrings stretching, to your leg muscles working hard to hold your Warrior pose, to the expansion of your chest on an inhale, to the pressure of your palm touching the floor, or the fabric of your shirt draping over your back. Feeling into the poses this way directs our attention away from concepts and stories about the body and toward a direct experience of the body. Of course, we still want to pay attention to safe alignment, but it’s easy to get caught up in endlessly arranging our parts, rather than ever truly feeling them. Feeling into the direct experience of the body is a huge part of what we do in mindfulness meditation, so we bring this onto the mat when we practice mindful yoga.
  • Experiment with the pace of your practice. Often a “Mindfulness Yoga” practice is on the slower side, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Slowing down can help you connect to the felt sense of the body and sustain your focus there, but mindfulness should be present at any tempo, whether you’re doing an intense Vinyasa Flow, a series of static standing poses, or a mellow Yin Yoga session.
  • Pause and notice. It helps to stop often to check in, pausing to deliberately break the momentum of the practice. Momentum is where habits go to hide. We easily get lost in the familiarity of a well-worn sequence and find ourselves spacing out. Or, we may find ourselves getting trapped inside our heads, as we intellectualize about the complexities of asana and anatomy. When we pause, we notice – and we can come back to our intention to practice in a way that emphasizes mindfulness. Speaking of which…
  • Be mindful of your intention. Rather than having a goal of mastering a particular pose or working the body out in a certain way, a mindful yoga practice centers around intentions that are more internal and meditative in nature: to awaken embodied awareness and an attitude of kindness toward the body, to strengthen the continuity of mindfulness through all activities, or to see how feelings influence your movements on the mat, for example. There’s a time and place for analyzing and “workshopping” poses, or refining your sequencing, and there’s a time to just feel in a more receptive, inwardly-drawn mode. In a mindful yoga practice, heightening our ability to feel enhances our ability to know change in the body, moment to moment – which leads to insight.

From the outside, it may not look all that different from how you already practice. The difference is in how you create space, work with intention, and how you place your attention.

This can all look really humble. I like to say that it’s not “show off” yoga, but rather “show up” yoga. In a mindful yoga practice, we are practicing fully showing up for ourselves – and our lives, our fellow humans, and our world. We are setting out to cultivate wisdom on the mat, and to practice asana in a way that supports and leads to seated meditation.

Feel free to share any other thoughts or tips for a mindful yoga practice in the comments!

For your yoga pleasure

AnneCushmanBookCoverI am currently reading and practicing with Anne Cushman’s new book Moving into Meditation: A 12-Week Mindfulness Program for Yoga Practitioners. If you know anything about my blog, you can tell from the title of her book that it’s right up my alley. Like waaaay up my alley. And it is such a clear, engaging, brilliant, humorous, and inspiring book, that I have looked forward to each day’s practice with it for about 9 weeks now (since it came out in July – yes, I am such a nerd, I had pre-ordered it). I can’t recommend it to you enough if you are interested in the fruitful integration of postural yoga with a formal meditation practice.

When you combine these practices together in a genuine way, as Anne Cushman has for many years, it is a truly potent path with all the advantages of meditation’s stillness and yoga’s momentum. You find you can slow down without getting stuck. You can move forward without running away. Light bulbs click on in every level of your being – body, heart, and mind.

To give you an idea of what the book is like, I’ll describe a practice session I had last week inspired by one of the exercises from chapter eight. This chapter is entitled “I love it! I hate it! I’m bored to death!” and it’s about vedana, or the feeling tones of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Both the Buddhist and yogic meditation traditions teach that we have these three categories of reaction automatically with every experience. (I wrote a little about vedana in an earlier post here about how we decide when it’s time to come out of a pose.) Basically, this is the mind’s quick-sort mechanism trying to protect us from what’s bad and steer us toward what’s good. But at the same time, this creates a relentless push-pull that can result in quite a bit of internal struggle and really drive our behavior in a lot of ways we’re not aware of until we start observing it. And, often our knee-jerk reactions are a bit off. The yoga mat is a great place to look at how vedana works. 

a-few-of-my-favorite-things3So, in the exercise “A Few of Your Favorite Things,” the instructions are to do an asana practice made up entirely of poses you find pleasant. Sounds great, right?

Well. Guess what. It was impossible!

I was, of course, looking forward to a blissful yoga session made up of all my favorite poses, and I generally think of yoga as a pleasant thing, so what could be better? Ok, so I had some suspicion that the purpose of this practice would be for the student to notice that an all-pleasant practice isn’t attainable. Yet, there was a part of me (and probably a part of you too, except for all my fully enlightened readers) that wanted to believe that I could get it just right and have the yoga session of the century. 

In actuality, there were definite moments of unpleasant feeling tone during the practice, and even within an overall pleasant-feeling pose. Sometimes getting into the pose wasn’t that pleasant, but it was great once I was there. Or the first few breaths in Down Dog were pure delight (ahhh…calves), but staying in it too long made it unpleasant because my elbows begin to ache (they have a tendency to want to hyperextend). On the right side, the reclining twist created a very pleasant stretch in the chest, but the left side was actually painful! Then there was that moment when I encountered a surprising pinching sensation in my sacrum as I settled into a pose that’s always been enjoyable before.

If you do this practice and have the same experience I had, it doesn’t mean that we chose the wrong poses or that we’re doing it all wrong. It means we’re actually seeing things the way they really are. (I challenge you – try it!)

mosaicheartTruly, there is no such thing as a purely pleasant moment (or a purely unpleasant moment) – it is more like each moment is a mosaic of some pleasant experiences, some unpleasant experiences, and some neutral. This is because we react to everything and there’s a lot going on in each and every little moment. One feeling tone may be much more obvious than the others at the time, but if you look closely you will see that there are aspects, maybe subtle, of the others. For example, imagine you’re talking a walk on a hot summer’s day. Here’s your internal monologue: “Ooh, that breeze is nice (pleasant), but the sun is too darn hot today (unpleasant). And the sun is right in my eyes (unpleasant), but the lighting looks really cool on that tree over there (pleasant).” Meanwhile, you were unaware of the feeling of your arms swinging (neutral), your breath (neutral), and your feet hitting the pavement (neutral). 

chocolateIf you are reading this and thinking, “Wait a minute…I have definitely had some great moments of pure joy. And, there was nothing unpleasant about that chocolate bar I had last night!” I don’t doubt your moments of pure joy and chocolate bars. But, if you think back to those experiences, was there any hint of “I wish this would never end,” or “How soon can I do this again,” or “Why does chocolate have to have so many calories?”

Uh huh. The pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral tones are all right there next to each other.

I have noticed this before, but it is so clear in an asana practice where you set out with the intention to make everything pleasant. So, is this a bummer that there’s no purely pleasant yoga practice? (Seriously – I challenge you to prove me wrong!)

Not in my mind – I feel like it gives us permission to use less energy trying to make everything all perfect all the time. We are such frenemies with our experience (frenemy etymology = friend/enemy). We’re always pushing and pulling at things to try to get them a certain way. That’s not bad or wrong, but at some point it does become tiresome. Let’s relax.

I hope you’ll try this practice, and I highly recommend Anne Cushman’s entire book. I am looking forward to learning a lot more from her this fall at the Mindfulness Yoga & Meditation Training program I’m taking at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I’ll be sure to keep you updated with tales from my practice there. Namaste!

Happy Interdependence Day!

mesh-internetYes, I spelled that correctly.

While we’re celebrating our nation’s history, freedom, and independence this weekend, why not pause to contemplate interdependence as well.

Interdependence acknowledges the connections between us all – that our actions and attitudes affect each other, for better or for worse. We are all in this together.

This past weekend, while teaching a Yin Yoga Teacher Training in Las Vegas, I was reminded of this connectivity as we discussed the anatomy of fascia. Fascia is, in fact, connective tissue! It plays a crucial and largely unsung role in the body, being a stabilizing net for our muscles and joints, helping maintain our structure and hold us in our shape, and even transporting water, hormones, and nutrients through the body, like your own personal internet. Fascia is one reason why a tight calf muscle can contribute to low back pain or achy shoulders, for example. None of our parts work in isolation. Nature is built on interdependence.fireworkswater

In the words of Chief Seattle:

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

So, Happy Interdependence Day! (And Happy regular 4th of July, too.)

Simple Does Not Mean Simplistic

In fact, it often takes a great deal of experience to pare things down to their essence. To clear the unnecessary clutter, to silence the extra noise.

simplicity_leonardodavinciMeditation is ultra-simple, but it’s not easy, is it? The same goes for many of the “basic” yoga poses, if we are paying attention.

When something is simplistic, it is trite, shallow, and inauthentic. True simplicity is quite the opposite – it is deep, satisfying, and often profound.

Bells and whistles are nice, but every once in a while, it’s good to let go of complication and embrace simplicity. It feels refreshing.

Practice Notes – Simplicity 2 (the sequel)

It’s officially summer movie season, which means sequels! Ok, so before you get too excited, this sequel is just further thoughts on a previous post, and does not involve a car chase or mega-shark-earthquake-alien-baby type situation. Just getting that out of the way…

It’s quite the opposite, actually. This post is about embracing simplicity in your yoga practice, in order to better facilitate a meditative state of mind. Earlier, in Practice Notes – Simplicity, I wrote about how framing the asana practice around a handful of basic poses helped me experience greater continuity between the asana part of practice and the sitting meditation that I did right after the poses.

wetstones_simplicityIn addition, I like to start my practice with 10 minutes or so of slow walking meditation (in the vicinity of my yoga mat), so the postural yoga practice is bookended by two forms of meditation. On a meditation retreat in the Vipassana (Insight) tradition, you alternate sessions of sitting and walking meditation throughout the day, weaving together meditation-in-action and meditation-in-stillness.

So, here’s how this goes in practice: choose 4 poses that make sense together and repeat them 3 times (in the same order).  The first time, you may pay a good bit of attention to particular elements of alignment that you’re working on, but with each repetition, let your approach be simpler, your mental instructions sparser, and your experience more internal. Choose fairly basic poses that you know you can do without strain. Hold each pose for a good while. Slow the practice down. Depending on the poses you choose, this postural yoga practice will take 20-40 minutes.

I have been practicing with this little template for a few months now. For me, it’s physical enough to awaken awareness in the body, and it does prepare me well for sitting. Sometimes the pose selection results in a pretty vigorous session, but it’s so focused because of the simplicity of the sequence and the repetition. And, on the second and third repetition of the pose, I often find a little more ease and sweetness in the posture, as the immediate sense memory allows it to come more easily.

You might be thinking, “how can you have a well-rounded yoga practice if you only do 4 poses?” Good question! There is room for variety here, because tomorrow you can choose an entirely different set of 4 poses that address other parts of the body. If you do this a few times a week, you can cycle through the whole body on a regular basis.

Here are a few examples:

Practice #1Your hips will feel open at the end, and you’ll feel grounded and ready for seated meditation.
Walking Meditation (about 10 mins)
a few rounds of Half Sun Salutations as a warm up
1. Downward Facing Dog
2. Warrior 2
3. Tree Pose
4. Malasana (Squat Pose)
Repeat 1-4 (Downward Facing Dog – Malasana) 2 more times, pause for a few breaths between each set
Sitting Meditation (about 30 mins for me, could be different for you)
Savasana (about 10 mins)

Practice #2 This one prepares the hips and strengthens the back body for sitting with good posture. It also has a few restorative poses after meditation to relieve a creaky back.
Walking Meditation (about 10 mins)
a few rounds of Half Sun Salutations and Cat/Cow warm ups
1. Staff Pose
2. Ardha Matsyandrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Twist)
3. Locust Pose
4. Pigeon Pose
Repeat 1-4 (Staff Pose – Pigeon Pose) 2 more times, pause for a few breaths between each set
Sitting Meditation (about 30 mins for me, but you can adjust according to your practice)
Legs Up the Wall (5 mins)
Supported Bridge Pose (5 mins)
Savasana (about 10 mins)

Practice #3 This one’s a little more vigorous, and will help develop the core strength needed to sit well. It should also help calm any restlessness before you sit.
Walking Meditation (about 10 mins)
a few rounds of Half Sun Salutations, gentle dynamic twists to warm up
1. Plank Pose
2. Triangle Pose
3. Pyramid Pose
4. Warrior 3 Pose
Repeat 1-4 (Plank Pose – Warrior 3 Pose) 2 more times, pause for a few breaths between each set
Sitting Meditation (about 30 mins for me, but could be shorter or longer for you)
Savasana (about 10 mins)

Choosing the 4 poses in advance eliminates the need to sequence the practice on the fly. I know from many a past practice (which could have been Over-Complication: The Prequel) that I don’t want to be thinking and remembering and analyzing that much when I’m trying to cultivate mindfulness. Do ever just get really “in your head” when you’re doing your home practice? That’s what I’m talking about. This helps.

Try it and let me know how it goes!